Thierry Nana was an aspiring fashion designer when he left Lansing in 2017 to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. He’s still set on his dreams, but it hasn’t been easy.
“Every time I wake up and I have to walk down the street, I have to remind myself that I’m Black and I’m gay,” Nana said. “Black means that I can be hated by white people and gay means that I can be hated by my own community. I ask myself, how do I belong?”
The white, heterosexual, cisgender world is belatedly waking up to a mode of experience known to queer and transgender people of color all their lives: intersectionality, the overlapping forces of discrimination and inequality that ripple and clash through everyday life.
Nana came to Lansing from Douala, Cameroon, in West Africa in 2014. Back home, his family did not accept that he is gay. His father beat him and his mother hoped an aunt who lived in Lansing would “cure” him.
Things looked up when he studied art at Lansing Community College and mounted art and fashion exhibits in Lansing. He had high hopes for a new life, but his experience in the United States, especially a stint at Kendall College of Design in Grand Rapids, has been disappointing.
“Do you know what it is to be black and gay in this world, in this country? I have to worry about being black and being killed, but even in my own community, people don’t understand what it is to be black and gay in the right way,” he said.
Mauricio Franco, one of this year’s City Pulse Inclusion awardees, works with Queering Medicine, a network of health care practitioners and students who work to make health care more accessible to the LGBTQ community.
“Our work has always been intersectional,” Franco said. “Our work has always recognized that racism is a public health crisis. We, as a group, recognize the health impact on black communities.”
The word “intersectionality” has become a political football, embraced by the left and ridiculed on the right, but the complex experience behind it is real enough for the people who live it.
“As we are embracing those terms, as we are learning about histories of oppression, it’s also really important to recognize that people have been saying these things for a very long time and it’s just now that people are starting to listen,” Franco said. “Intersectionality was coined by an African-American law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, at UCLA, to really give a sense of how an African-American woman of color, specifically a black woman, experiences oppression in many forms all at once.”
Numbers are a cold way to measure heartbreak, but they offer an entry point. Health outcomes for LGBTQ people of color are alarming across the board. The Centers for Disease Control reports that young, Black bisexual men are among the communities hardest hit by HIV. Economic insecurity hits the Black LGBTQ community extra hard as well. Black transgender people face a poverty rate of over 30%, compared to 9% for the general population.
Black transgender women face the highest levels of fatal violence in the LGBTQ community, and they are the most likely to be re-victimized by the police. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 38% of Black transgender people who interacted with police reported harassment, 14% reported physical assault and 6% reported sexual assault.
Many more disturbing numbers could be cited, but Franco urges people to look past the numbers at the forces behind them.
“As a queer person of color, what I think is that there are many systems in play here that have a long history of affecting queer communities, communities of color and their health outcomes,” Franco said. “Too often, you see these alarming numbers and just accept them as alarming, without understanding that there are reasons why, and there are things that can be done to eliminate them.”
Improvements in the economic, health and political condition of LGBTQ people of color are inextricably linked to major shifts in national priorities.
“When I think about it personally, it’s about addressing racism, addressing white supremacy, it’s about addressing the ways queer people are discriminated against in health care, in employment,” Franco said. “You need to do that work and look all the way back and understand the root cause.”
Numbers have their use, but they also place undue attention on “victims” and leave open the nefarious inference that among certain populations, “things are just that way.”
But Franco stressed that it’s not being black and gay that causes these outcomes, but rather the surrounding web of classism, heterosexism and racism.
The pattern plays out in myriad ways. A 2019 study published in Social Science & Medicine found that “intersectional stigma” contributes to low use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for Black gay men in the United States. HIV infection in the United States still affects Black gay men more than white and Hispanic gay men, even though Black gay men “consistently report fewer sex partners and less risk behaviors.”
Black men face race-based judgments from healthcare providers that “erode trust,” the study found. As a result, many Black gay men are reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation and approach doctors as straight men to avoid being judged— but posing as straight limits access to PrEP.
Isabella Copeland, also one of this year’s City Pulse Inclusion awardees, knows all about the dispiriting numbers.
“A black trans person is more vulnerable than a white gay guy,” she said. “We’ve had about 15 black trans people murdered just this year.”
But Copeland would like to focus more on strength than vulnerability. Copeland has met and befriended an impressive array of voices that won’t be silenced in the past two years, while planning and leading several popular LGBTQ gatherings, including Queers Who Brunch, Thought Club and poetry readings featuring the work of queer women of color.
“One thing that’s coming out from the research is something the queer community has known forever,” Copeland said. “For people of color and black people in particular, resiliency is a factor that cannot be undervalued. We can see that resilience playing a role in our community gatherings.”
These days, Thierry Nana is finding his own form of resilience. After suffering though a series of workaday jobs, financial woes and near-suicidal bouts of loneliness, Nana did a stint in the Army, saved some money and is looking forward to going to fashion design school.
“By the beginning of next year, you’ll see my brand out there,” he said. “I’m getting ready to get involved in fashion in a really big way.”
He’s not sure whether conditions around him will change, but he’s determined to tap his own strength.
“Maybe we change, maybe we never change,” he said. “But for the time being, it’s about my own happiness. I’m in my room, there’s no black or gay. I can pour myself a glass of wine and watch TV and nobody will come and kill me for that.”